Common wisdom decreed that following Alex Ferguson was the most difficult job in football. So entrenched had Manchester United become in the ways of Fergie-ism that whichever unfortunate tried to take the baton was only ever likely to fall fantastically short. And so it transpired.
By contrast, following Jose Mourinho at Chelsea might well have been the best gig going. The loss of faith in Mourinho, whether through his treatment of staff members, public chastisement of players or stifling of creativity, caused a cloud to form over Stamford Bridge. Taking the Premier League champions to 16th place made on-field improvements just as likely as those away from the pitch.
The last thing Chelsea needed was another strong-willed personality. Rather than someone coming in and giving the Chelsea snow globe another vigorous shake, Roman Abramovich required a candidate happier allowing tensions to settle. It may be an over-simplification of some complex politics, but they needed a good cop to Mourinho’s bad cop routine.
In such circumstances, Guus Hiddink was the ideal replacement. It is difficult to imagine a man more laid back and relaxed; the Dutch stereotype rings true. Hiddink is the perfect antidote to Mourinho, the Alka-Seltzer to cure Chelsea’s upset stomach.
“I never worked with Jose Mourinho, but having had the pleasure of working with Guus, if the atmosphere was intense under Jose it will be completely the opposite with Guus,” Ray Wilkins told Sky Sports after his appointment. “He will demand they train well and demand they play to a very high standard, but the training will be of a very jovial fashion.” We’re picturing Gary Cahill in a pair of fake breasts while Cesc Fabregas and Willian squirt each other with water pistols right now.
Indeed, it would be foolish to interchange ‘jovial’ with carefree. Hiddink’s approach is to treat his players as adults and ask them to pay back such trust. He is more guardian than schoolteacher, but that attitude does not indicate any lesser desire to win than his predecessor.
“If you make a mistake in training, or in a game, he will scream and shout at you,” recalled John Terry in 2009, during Hiddink’s previous spell at the club. “He gives you a kick up the backside and sometimes as a big player you need that.”
Players remarked too on the simplicity of his team talks and training exercises during his previous spell, including the admission from one player that “Hiddink understood that players switched off after long instruction”. Johan Cruyff and Hiddink may have had public disagreements over the performances of the Dutch national team, but the latter would at least subscribe to the former’s view of the game: “Soccer is simple, but it is difficult to play simple.”
The role of an interim manager is extremely difficult to gauge. You can’t immediately start d*ck-swinging or stamping your authority, because players (and staff) know that you are more of a temporary fixture than them. Yet there are also problems that must be solved post-haste. There’s a reason for your employment; things went wrong under the last guy. Hiddink’s previous experience at Chelsea hands him a short-cut; he already has respect and goodwill in the bank.
Hiddink’s changes at Chelsea have been simple, but effective. Attacking players have been given more licence to stay forward, full-backs have been given the opportunity to cross the half-way line, while John Obi Mikel has been instantly given a more prominent role. Hiddink’s advice for Diego Costa has also caused an instant improvement, with Thibaut Courtois revealing that the new manager has markedly increased the amount of shooting practice in training. Costa has contributed as many league goals and assists in 180 minutes since Hiddink arrived as he did in 1,105 minutes under Mourinho this season.
On Sunday against Crystal Palace, Hiddink’s strategical tweak also saw Chelsea to victory. “I don’t like to see a team drop back very far, to seek false security but to look forwards and to get the ball as soon as possible,” Hiddink said, after his side had continued attacking after taking the lead. Having dropped ten league points from winning positions this season, it’s a tactic worth pursuing.
Most importantly of all, Hiddink’s management style allows for Chelsea’s players to feel more at ease after the final few months of eggshell-treading under Mourinho. “He is always like a father figure to the team, speaking to the players individually, putting an arm around them and getting feedback from the team on what we think problems are,” says Mikel. Captain Terry remarked that Hiddink has picked everyone at the club up, “just like he did last time”.
Finally, Hiddink is gloriously free from agenda. Aged 69, this may be his last foray into club management. He knows the place, knows some of the key players and know what he must do. As he said when walking into the club in 2009, “I’m just here to do a favour for a friend.”
Hiddink will not work wonders at Chelsea, and his top-four ambitions are fanciful. Yet even in his early weeks we have seen enough to know that he can be successful in his principal task; getting Chelsea back on an even keel. After the rollercoaster of Jose Mourinho, Chelsea should be happy to settle down with their pipe and slippers. This is a squad enjoying its football again.